Nearly every young Clevelander with a video game console has played "Madden" in an attempt to take the Browns to a Super Bowl. Personally, I remember spending many happy hours in front of the television as a kid, watching the Browns win game after game in a virtual reality.
Unfortunately, you can't turn off the salary cap and set the difficulty to "easy" in real life.
The idea of a Browns playoff appearance seems far-fetched. Ineptitude has reigned in Berea since 1999, though the current regime has restored some hope. Led by head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer, the Browns have a solid team with sturdy building blocks in place. This year's draft saw the Browns fortify the offensive and defensive lines and add playmakers at several positions.
The possibility of a playoff run still sounds foreign, but less so than in December. The question is this: What must happen for the Browns to make the playoffs in 2015?
Below, I've outlined the five keys for the Browns to secure a bid to the postseason. This is not an expansive list, as it only includes the most important ideas.
1. Competent Quarterback Play
The phrase "franchise quarterback" is tossed around a lot nowadays. Fans and pundits point to the quarterback being key to a playoff appearance. Not so fast.
Save for the 2000 Ravens and 2002 Buccaneers, history teaches us that a franchise quarterback is necessary to win a Super Bowl. But a star signalcaller is not a prerequisite for the playoffs. Consider the 2014 Cardinals (Drew Stanton, Carson Palmer, Ryan Lindley), 2013 Eagles (Nick Foles, Michael Vick), 2012 Texans (Matt Schaub), 2011 Broncos (Tim Tebow, Kyle Orton) and the 2010 Jets (Mark Sanchez).
The common thread through these examples is average to above average play from each team's quarterback(s). Admittedly, these teams are a small sample size and cannot be used as definitive evidence. However, I selected each one knowing that none of the quarterbacks listed above can be currently considered a "franchise quarterback" by any metric.
Using the above five teams, I calculated the average number of touchdowns and interceptions per team in the regular season. Save for the Eagles' 32 passing touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2011, the figures were nearly identical. On average, each team received about 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions from its quarterbacks in the season it made the playoffs. (Stats compiled via Pro-Football-Reference.com.)
It is impossible to use the data above as necessary criteria for a playoff appearance. However, the figures of 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions provide a rough estimate of what a team needs from its quarterback(s) to make the playoffs. As a point of comparison, Browns quarterbacks combined for 12 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 2014.
To make the playoffs in 2015, the Browns don't need a savior at quarterback, though a long-term solution would certainly be welcome.
2. Development of Low Draft Picks
First round players are the money picks for an NFL franchise. A general manager is largely judged based upon his success in the first round. But smart selections in the later rounds can pay large dividends, too.
The common denominator of NFL playoff teams is depth. Injuries are a part of the game, and the best teams plan for them. According to Football Outsiders, the average NFL team suffered 74.3 adjusted games lost to injury in 2014. The Browns came in at 14th with 67 adjusted games lost (for more on injuries and AGL, click here).
The best way to build depth is by nailing late round draft selections, defined here as players taken in the fourth round or later. Finding diamonds in the rough late in the draft is difficult, but essential in the NFL.
Consider the Patriots and Seahawks. From 1999-2008, the Patriots and Seahawks each selected nine such players who went on to play 100 or more games (an arbitrary number, but over the league average) in the NFL. The Browns picked six (with Ahtyba Rubin very close to 100). Here's another stat to think about. Heading into the Super Bowl, the Patriots had 11 players on their roster selected from the fourth through seventh rounds, while the Seahawks had nine, including five of the team's 10 defensive backs (via SB Nation and Pro-Football-Reference). In the Browns' final game of the season against the Ravens, Cleveland had just six (Jordan Cameron, Billy Winn, Buster Skrine, Travis Benjamin, Pierre Desir, and Rubin).
The Browns selected 12 players in the 2015 NFL Draft, including seven in the fourth round or later. Developing these players drafted in the later rounds is critical, as low draft picks can supply depth and an occasional star (Tom Brady, Richard Sherman, et al). Pettine and his staff must coax significant contributions out of Farmer's big draft class for this Browns team to be successful.
3. Record of 3-3 or Better Against the AFC North
The Browns have the misfortune of playing in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL. The AFC North is a punishing division that will chew you up and spit you out, as the Browns learn year after year.
To secure a playoff spot in the AFC North, you don't need to dominate, but simply survive.
Since the NFL restructured its divisions after the 2001 season, adding the AFC and NFC South, the Browns have a record of 20-58 against the Steelers, Bengals, and Ravens. Only twice have the Browns broken even at 3-3 -- 2002 and 2007. In 2002, the club clinched a wild card bid with a 9-7 record. In 2007, the Browns narrowly missed out on a playoff spot with a 10-6 record.
Coincidence? I think not.
Few teams in the NFL can sneak into the playoffs with a losing record against divisional foes, especially in the AFC North. As the Bengals and Ravens showed in 2014, a team can get into the playoffs with a 3-3 mark against fellow AFC North teams. But to be safe, you want to go 4-2.
Considering the recent successes of the Steelers, Bengals, and Ravens, notching a 4-2 record seems impossible. Perhaps the Browns could sweep the Bengals, but beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh or the Ravens in Baltimore seems daunting.
A 3-3 divisional record seems more plausible. The Browns could beat all three teams at home, given the right set of circumstances. The Browns manhandled the Steelers and narrowly lost to the Ravens at First Energy Stadium in 2014.
The key is avoiding a 2-4 record against AFC North foes. With a poor record against divisional opponents, the margin of error against other teams is very small. Outside of the AFC North, the 2015 Browns will face major challenges such as the Broncos, Seahawks, and Cardinals.
4. Have an Average or Better Offense
The Browns are notoriously inept on offense.
To the dismay of the team's fans, the Browns often fail to convert on key downs, leading to lost points. Promising potential touchdown drives frequently end in field goals.
The Browns need to cure this ill to make a run at the postseason.
According to Football Outsiders, the Browns ranked 28th in points per drive (1.47) in 2014. The Browns sat at 27th in touchdowns per drive (.153) and 22nd in field goals per drive (.132). In simpler terms, the Browns scored on about 28.5% of their offensive drives. Of the Browns' drives that reached the red zone, the end result was a touchdown just 49% of the time.
Simply put, the Browns don't score enough touchdowns.
Most Browns fans already know this. But here's why these stats matter: In the offensive categories of yards/drive, touchdowns/drive, points/drive, and touchdowns/red zone appearance, the Cardinals (all four) and the Bengals (yards/drive: 22nd) were the only 2014 playoff teams to rank below 20th in any of these categories.
This tells us that while the Cardinals snuck into the playoffs with a below average offense, it's not common. The Browns could get into the playoffs with a phenomenal defense and a lackluster offense, but it's much easier with an average offense. Remember last year's Bills. On defense, Buffalo ranked in the top three in three of the four statistical areas outlined above, but finished 25th or worse in these categories on offense. The Bills missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
As mentioned above in the first point, the Browns need competent quarterback play to make this happen. McCown and Manziel don't need to be superstars. All these two need to do is help the Browns score in the red zone.
As long as the ground game pounds opponents, the Browns will be fine on offense, especially if the team's defense is as good as advertised.
The Browns shouldn't make the playoffs in 2015. This is a team without a franchise quarterback, a true #1 wide receiver, or a star pass rusher. The Browns have the pieces in place to finish the season at .500, but it will take luck to push this team over the top.
Good luck is difficult to define. It could be a stellar season for an aging veteran, such as McCown. It could be a lack of injuries, especially at secondary. It could be the right bounce at the right time, like a Steelers running back fumbling the ball in the red zone late in an important game.
One example of an opportune bounce for the Browns came on November 18, 2007. Trailing the Ravens 30-27 with just seconds remaining in regulation, Phil Dawson lined up to kick a 51-yard field goal. His kick clanked off the left upright before bouncing down off the crossbar support and tumbling into the end zone. The referees originally ruled the kick no good, causing the Ravens to celebrate and head to their locker room. However, the refs overturned the call and the Browns eventually won in overtime. The Browns won three of their next four games and finished the season with a 10-6 record.
As any Cleveland fan knows, however, the ball rarely bounces in the Browns' favor. In one particularly applicable example, lady luck dealt the Browns a devastating loss in early November of 2001. The Browns held a 14-point lead over the Bears with 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter before disaster struck. Chicago quarterback Shane Matthews tossed a nine-yard touchdown pass to narrow the Cleveland lead to seven, the Bears recovered an onside kick, and Chicago running back James Allen hauled in a Hail May pass for a touchdown to force overtime. Browns quarterback Tim Couch threw a pick-six on the first play of overtime to complete the meltdown. The Browns fell to 4-3 and lost six of their remaining nine games.
Luck comes in a number of ways. It's tough to get a handle on lady luck, but the Browns need her all the same.
With another good draft next year, the Browns are a playoff contender in 2016. In the meantime, the Browns are a team on the brink. A twist of fate could send this team careening into a disastrous 4-12 season or a wildly celebrated 10-6 finish in 2015.
What do you think: Could the Browns make the playoffs in 2015? Let your voice be heard in the comments section below.